Discussion With Marie Howe: "What the Living Do"

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:56 min

Learn how what began as a letter to her brother became one of Marie’s most acclaimed poems with “What the Living Do.”

Billy Collins
Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - Next, Marie and I are going to each- we're going to look at one of our own poems and talk about it. I've never done this with anybody before, and I have no idea what's going to happen. But Marie's going to start, and like, as in a workshop, she's going to read her poem first, and then we'll say something about it. And her poem is from the book "What the Living Do," and it's the title poem. - Thank you, Billy. You know, I want to say since I was talking about the difficulty of writing sometimes, and this poem came at the end of a long writing day. I'd been writing all day, working on four or five different poems at once. Finally, I just pushed everything aside. I said, I'm not going to write a poem. - Yeah. - I'm just going to write a letter to my dead brother. - Yeah. - And this is what happened. What the living do. My brother's name is John. Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days. Some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It's winter again. The sky is a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living room windows, because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking. I've been thinking, this is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve. I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush. This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come, and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call, or not call, a letter, a kiss. We want more, and more, and then more of it. But there are moments walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep from my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless. I am living. I remember you. - Such a powerful poem. I talked the other day about that poems often are preceded by other poems that are never completed. You might write for an hour or two, and nothing's happening. But the poem that takes place after that, you couldn't write if you hadn't done that scribbling before. So many things about this poem. It does-- it does feel inspired. It does-- the way it kind of jumps forward into-- like "for weeks now, every day, Johnny, yesterday." It's kind of all around in time, but there are moments. But there's a combination of the every day, particularly, the speaker being left alone, and unable to fix the sink, and thinking some utensil probably fell down. They're not sure. The dishes are piled up. The living-- she can't deal with the living room heat and all...

Let imagination lead the way

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Allowed me to trust my process as I write, and also to be patient with myself. Kickstarted ideas for creating and structuring poems.

As a creative writing teacher, and a poet, I've taken workshop upon workshop on writing poetry. This class taught me more in these 20 lessons than all of the reading and workshopping I've done in my 30 years of being a writer. Billy Collins' classes are inspiring; I feel very hopeful now, that I am on the right path to write what needs to be written. Thank you!

This Masterclass has equipped me with alot of new techniques and methods that are really useful when writing poetry. It has also given me more ways of approaching and reading the poetry of others.

This class inspired me to read and write poetry. It also met me on a personal level, in unexpected ways. Thank you, MasterClass, for this course! Thank you, Billy Collins, for sharing with us!


A fellow student

"What the Living Do" is such a powerful poem. I loved it. It is so honest and so simple, yet so true. You are not here anymore and this is what we do, worrying about clogged sink and dishes piling up. We live to do everyday things but we also live to remember. Wonderful poem, indeed.

Allan A.

Very instructive, but also a bit frustrating in that it gives us more analysis than presentation.

Sharon C.

I like the ordinary of Marie Howe's work, how it feels like having a conversation with a woman friend. What I take from her work, for instance, is the poet observing the click of her mother's uncut toenails on the floor..... the nails of a woman who failed her children, herself. "What the Living Do," is so accurate. "At least mother was not alive to see this," a friend with no claim to being a poet said, after 9/11.

Sherry H.

Am I the only one who thought this poem was about a former love interest who left for some reason? There is no indication in the poem that it is about a brother and I think there should be a dedication or some clue in the poem about this. When I first read the poem (I read ahead) and had not viewed the lesson, I was haunted by it. I thought how brilliant. The poet is telling this guy how much she misses him and her struggle with the everyday when he has left. I guess the poem could have two interpretations and both would make me feel a particular way.


Wonderful poeam and great discussion. How powerfu every single word is! I read the lines with "fork" and "nose" and it makes a big difference. Sometimes I am searching for the right word in my poem, I know that it exists, it's on the tip of my tongue and it can take me some days to find it. , And than, all of a sudden, it is there and the poem sounds right.

Victoria H.

One thing I love to do is write letters to the dead, as if they are a ghost at my table and I discussing some memories with them, it's not always honest but some things I have imagined or my mind just made have made up cause it wanted me to experience it with the person. I find poems easier to write good if I imagine a dead person I loved is sitting at my table and we are just talking. I don't think I could of wrote some of my best work, if I wasn't such a lonely person with make believe friends and ghost with me all the time.

Kaerla F.

"Fork", "nose", and other funny words. Why do we find them funny, I wonder? I loved Marie's poem, and the discussion. It reminds me of my Poetry classes in college, which I loved.

Kasy L.

I loved Marie Howe's poem. This is the first time I have read it. This was a really fascinating discussion, as well.

Karen S.

Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem and for the fascinating discussion. It's such a pleasure to discover and rediscover so many wonderful poems.

Tanya H.

Father I remember my childhood was not always meek and gay I remember how you were happy, but I also made you angry in some way I remember the times when you taught me music and the guitar, you’d play I remember the ax handle you use to use on me in another way I know you loved me in your own tender way I know you hated me from day to day I know you would say that I was God’s child and I would stay I know you would say that I was not your child and you wanted to slay I learned a lot being your kid I learned not to be treated like a punching bag I learned not to treat people bad I learned to forgive, love, play and be happy in a special way But most of all what I learned being your child is how to survive from day to day.